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Mukasey Sworn In as Attorney General

New York Times
November 9, 2007

By CARL HULSE Published: November 9, 2007

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 — Michael B. Mukasey was sworn in as attorney general this afternoon, less than a day after winning Senate confirmation despite Democratic criticism that he had failed to take an unequivocal stance against the torture of terror detainees.

Mr. Mukasey, a former federal judge, took the oath in a brief, private ceremony at the Justice Department with members of his family watching, Brian Roehrkasse, a Justice Department spokesman, told The Associated Press.

Mr. Roehrkasse said the oath was administered by Assistant Attorney General Lee Lofthus, who heads the department's management and budget operations. A public swearing-in ceremony is planned for next week at the White House. President Bush was at his Texas ranch this afternoon.

The 53 to 40 Senate vote late Thursday made Mr. Mukasey, a former federal judge, the third man to head the Justice Department under President Bush, placing him in charge of an agency that members of both parties say suffered under the leadership of Alberto R. Gonzales.

His backers praised him as a strong choice to restore morale at the Justice Department and independently oversee federal prosecutions in the final months of the Bush administration.

"The Department of Justice needs Judge Mukasey at work tomorrow morning," said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "The Department of Justice has been categorized as dysfunctional and in disarray. It is in urgent need of an attorney general."

But Democrats said Mr. Mukasey's refusal to characterize waterboarding, a technique that simulates drowning, as illegal torture disqualified him from taking over as the nation's top law enforcement official.

"I am not going to aid and abet the confirmation contortions of this administration," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "I do not vote to allow torture."

The attorney general's post became vacant in late August when Mr. Gonzales stepped aside. For months, he had faced severe criticism over charges that political calculations played a part in the department's dismissal of a handful of United States attorneys and over his role in shaping the administration's policies on torture and electronic surveillance.

Mr. Mukasey was initially hailed by Democrats as a leader who would bring welcome change to the Justice Department. His nomination had been recommended to the White House by Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, a member of the party leadership familiar with Mr. Mukasey from his service on the bench in New York.

On the first day of his confirmation hearings, Mr. Mukasey said he would resign if directed by the White House to take any action he believed was illegal or violated the Constitution, winning Democratic praise. On the second day of his testimony, Mr. Mukasey sidestepped the question of whether waterboarding was torture and also suggested that the president's Constitutional powers could supersede federal law in some cases.

Those responses stirred strong Democratic opposition, throwing his confirmation into question. Trying to stem the rising opposition, Mr. Mukasey said that while he personally found the concept of waterboarding repugnant, he could not pass judgment on whether it was illegal because he had not been briefed on administration interrogation techniques.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said she was confident that Mr. Mukasey would be nonpartisan and that his refusal to make a judgment on torture without knowing all the facts of interrogation policy should not keep him from the post.

"This man has been a judge for 18 years," said Ms. Feinstein, who along with Mr. Schumer provided the key supporting votes to push Mr. Mukasey through the Judiciary Committee. "Maybe he likes to consider the facts before he makes a decision."

But she was in conflict with most of her Democratic colleagues. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, opposed the choice even though he said he was predisposed to back Mr. Mukasey.

"During his confirmation hearings, Judge Mukasey expressed views about executive power that I and many other senators found deeply disturbing," said Mr. Reid. "And I was outraged by his evasive, hair-splitting approach to questions about the legality of waterboarding." Republicans hailed Mr. Mukasey and accused Democrats of stalling the nomination and focusing on the torture issue to score political points. "The Department of Justice has a vital role to play in the war against Islamic terrorists, and it is critically important that it have a leader who can ensure that it fulfills its mission," said Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona. "Judge Mukasey is this kind of leader."

Mr. Mukasey presided over terrorism prosecutions while a federal judge in New York and has publicly backed the administration's broad interpretation of powers granted it under the Patriot Act. Named to the bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, Mr. Mukasey served as a judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York until 2006, the last six years of his tenure as chief judge.

Before that, Mr. Mukasey practiced law in New York City for 20 years and served as an assistant United States attorney in the federal prosecutor's office for four years. In 1976, he joined the law firm of Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, where he returned three days after his retirement from the district court.

 

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